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In Focus : What the Remote Natuna Islands Reveal about Indonesia’s Stance on China

Call it Indonesia’s Natuna dilemma: Native fishermen there would like protection from Chinese encroachment in their waters – but Jakarta would like to keep its biggest economic partner.

NATUNA, Indonesia: The water is crystal clear, blue; a picture of serenity and tranquillity. Yet for the men and women whose lives depend on Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea, genuine calm and peace is but a distant memory.

As they navigate their wooden fishing boats among islands in an area often dubbed Indonesia’s front porch, menacing encounters over the decades with foreign vessels – including larger, metal and sometimes armed ones – have been commonplace.

“They fish at the spot where I usually fish, but they tell me to go away,” said 39-year-old Dedi. 

Mr Dedi, who like many of his compatriots goes by one name, has plied his trade in those waters since dropping out of junior high school 25 years ago. 

He said that because of intruding competition from Vietnam, China and the Philippines, his catch has dwindled along with his earnings.

In more recent years, Mr Dedi and other fishermen have also come across coast guard boats and even warships, mostly from China. 

“When I first saw a coast guard boat, I was scared,” he said. “It approached me, and someone on the boat opened a map showing dashed lines, the nine-dash line.

“He said something, but I couldn’t understand him. I opened my map and showed him this is Indonesia’s territory.” 

Beijing has used the so-called nine-dash line to assert sovereignty over vast stretches of the South China Sea. And along the southern edge of the resource-rich ocean is Mr Dedi’s Natuna fishing grounds – which China also lays claim to.

Chinese coast guard vessels have been deployed to the area at least six times between January and June 2023, said the head of Natuna’s coast guard station Mukhlis, who also goes by one name.

“Every year, it’s the same because whatever we do, the Chinese vessels still insist on their nine-dash line,” he told CNA.

“So we must be present there, whether our warships or our coast guard vessels.”

A major standoff at the start of 2020 drew fighter jets, warships and dozens of vessels from both countries – and a visit to the remote island chain by Indonesian President Joko Widodo himself.

Since then, however, Jakarta’s response to continued Chinese encroachment – and growing local resentment in turn – has been largely muted.

Analysts point to a delicate juggling act between domestic concerns, fledgling geopolitical ambitions and a long-held non-aligned foreign policy stance being tested by great power rivalry.

Staying “silent” in this context is by design, according to international relations expert Yohanes Sulaiman. 

“Indonesia doesn’t want the situation in the Natunas to heat up,” he said. “Because we want China’s investments.”



The North Natuna Sea is part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province, which includes the Batam and Bintan islands. Nestled in the southern part of the sea is the Natuna island cluster of at least 154 islets, home to about 80,000 people, most of whom are fishermen.

The Natunas also falls within Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) adopted in 1982 and ratified by more than 160 states, including Indonesia and China. 

Beijing, however, has claimed the Natunas as within its traditional fishing rights in the South China Sea, as demarcated by its U-shaped nine-dash line.

China has also bickered with other Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) states –  namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – over their claims to parts of the South China Sea, which carries about one-third of global shipping and over US$3 trillion worth of trade yearly.

Officially a non-claimant state, the regional bloc’s “big brother” Indonesia emerged in the early 2010s as a self-styled mediator and “honest broker” on disputes over the key maritime conduit.

In 2016, an arbitration court in the Hague ruled that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights to areas within its nine-dash line.

That same year, amid multiple incursions into the Natunas by Chinese fishing boats, Indonesia began publicly referring to the nine-dash line as overlapping with its EEZ. 

President Widodo, better known as Jokowi, also made a high-level visit to the islands, in what was viewed by many as a show of force and assertion of Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Jakarta renamed the waters as the North Natuna Sea the next year.

During the 2020 standoff, China argued that it had “sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters near the Nansha Islands”, using the Chinese name for the nearby Spratly Islands adjacent to the North Natuna Sea.

“China and Indonesia don’t have disputes over territorial sovereignty. We have overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests in some areas in the South China Sea,” said then-foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in a press conference.

“China hopes Indonesia will remain calm. We would like to handle our differences with Indonesia in a proper way and uphold our bilateral relations as well as peace and stability in the region.” 

Beijing reiterated its stance in a diplomatic note issued in May the same year, adding that it was “willing to settle the overlapping claims through negotiation and consultation with Indonesia”.

Indonesia, however, rejected the offer, stating there was “no legal reasoning under international law to conduct negotiations on maritime boundaries’ delimitation with China”.

Beyond fishing, oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea has presented another flash point.

In 2021, Beijing reportedly told Indonesia to stop drilling for these materials at a temporary offshore rig, located near a North Natuna Sea gas field known as the Tuna block.

Indonesian lawmakers told media outlets that it would not accede because it had a sovereign right. Chinese and Indonesian ships would shadow each other around the oil and gas block over the next few months.

At the end of 2022, Jakarta approved a US$3 billion development plan for the Tuna block, which is part of the largest untapped natural gas deposit in the world.

Shortly after, China’s CCG 5901 – the world’s largest coast guard vessel – was spotted sailing in the Natuna sea and particularly near the block.

“I am angry (China) claims they can fish in our waters,” said Mr Dedi, who lives on Bunguran island or Great Natuna, the biggest isle in the area and approximately a 1.5-hour flight from Batam. “And I’ve cursed them (when I encounter them), but they were aloof.”

A fishing village on Great Natuna island. (Photo: CNA/Danang Wisanggeni)

Another Natuna fisherman, Endang Firdaus, has also encountered Chinese fishing trawlers several times. He said he saw a warship early in 2023.

“I was afraid … because it was clearly not a red and white (Indonesian) flag. It was red, so China’s flag,” said the 38-year-old. “I was afraid because it was not just passing by. It was going back and forth.

“I never tell my family about such incidents because if I tell them, they will worry about me going to the sea.”

These encounters have an outsized impact on their trade and income levels, fishermen told CNA.

When threatened by much larger foreign vessels, they have little choice but to manoeuvre away, thus sacrificing a potential haul.

About a decade ago Mr Dedi, for instance, could earn in the hundreds of million rupiah per month, in contrast to the 50 million rupiah (US$3,290) he now takes home.

After paying for his crew, fuel and other expenses, he is typically left with less than 10 million rupiah (US$660) to support his wife and three children.  

But Mr Dedi does not want to entertain alternative means to putting food on the table. “My ancestors are seafarers,” he said. “My faith is to be at sea.”

Most fishermen in Natuna still use traditional fishing techniques. (Photo: CNA/Danang Wisanggeni)


The ongoing situation in the Natunas now comes amid the larger role played by Indonesia on the global stage in recent months.

Last year, as rotating president of the Group of 20 (G20) – the world’s 20 largest economies – it successfully hosted a summit on the resort island of Bali, where US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had their first meeting as leaders.

Engaging in such public international diplomacy aimed at brokering peace and dialogue between rival great powers also served Indonesia’s national interest, according to S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) fellows Leonard C Sebastian and James Guild.

“The main motivation was to prevent disruption in Indonesia’s existing trade and investment deals with those great powers,” they wrote in a commentary.

Either way, Indonesia will want to carry that diplomatic momentum onto its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023.

At an annual confab of ASEAN foreign ministers in July, talks with China also culminated in an agreement on guidelines to accelerate negotiations for a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Attempts to finalise a legally binding document to manage disputes in the intensely disputed waterway have started, stalled and sputtered on since the 1990s.

Source : channel News Asia

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